Are Humanities Degrees A Dying Breed?

A J Gordon Chapel Gordon College

A. J. Gordon Chapel, Gordon College. Photo: John Phelan [CC BY 3.0] via Wikimedia

Gordon College announced recently that it was eliminating chemistry, French, physics, middle school and secondary education, recreation, sport and wellness, Spanish, and social work as separate majors, and combining philosophy, history and political science into a single department. This will mean the cutting of 36 faculty and staff positions.

Several small liberal arts colleges have faced closure, and one senses that the move on Gordon College’s part is to avoid a similar fate. Between 2012 and 2015, the number of bachelors degrees in the humanities dropped by nearly ten percent.  By contrast, degrees granted in engineering, science and health and medical sciences have increased.

Much of this is attributed to a rise in the number of jobs related to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)-related disciplines. Not only do majors in these fields preclude major in the humanities for all but the most motivated students, but the course loads in these majors are driving the reduction of what we called General Education courses, those that provided the necessary number of student hours in these humanities courses.

In my work in collegiate ministry with graduate students and faculty, most of those I know in the humanities are working as adjunct or contingent faculty, as tenured faculty positions dry up. They are lured to grad school by a love for literature, or history, or philosophy, and the chance to dig more deeply into what they love on fellowships or tuition waivers and stipends for teaching introductory courses with undergrads. They are actually low-cost labor. Then, as they wrap up four to six years of study with a dissertation, they go onto a saturated job market competing with several hundred others for every open tenure track position, often settling for those adjunct or contingent faculty positions. Many times they have to pay their own health benefits out of salaries that place them below the poverty line. Some find other ways to leverage their talents in industry, teaching high school, free-lancing or other jobs related, sometimes tangentially,  to their field. And some are baristas, or food truck vendors.

While it saddens me to see people who do not find jobs in the fields they love, most end up living satisfying and interesting lives. What saddens me more is the message many others are buying into in preparing for work in STEM fields. These are often sold as the training needed to fill the jobs that fuel the American economy. The message seems to imply that the purpose for which the emerging generation exists is to be fuel for our economic machine, or maybe a cog in the machine–until the machine replaces them! I find myself wondering how long people will settle for this before waking up to the fact that they know how to make and do, but have no idea why they are making and doing, what kind of world they are making and doing in, whether their making and doing is something good and worthy to give one’s only life, and how we arrive at this place in time and this kind of society.

A good liberal education helps people explore all these questions, and consider whether the answers of others address the questions of the day. I wonder sometimes whether the effort to eradicate what was once a staple of education is a recognition of the dangerous character of such an education. It fosters the asking of hard questions of oneself and one’s society. Questions people ask. Questions cogs do not ask.

I asked the question of how long it would take for people to wake up to what they’ve missed or lost. I suspect some never do, the amusements and distractions of life precluding such awakenings. Others get twenty years into a career only to discover that they have no clue why they are doing what they do other than that it pays well.

Writing a blog, and curating a Facebook page devoted to book, reading, and ideas, I interact with a diverse community of people for whom ideas and history, literature and art matter. They have discovered that making a life is far more important than making a living. They want to understand not only how to do things, but to make sense of their place in the world and this particular time in its history. Some have always understood this. Others fought to this realization later in life.

It makes me wonder whether at times humanities courses are wasted on the young. I wonder whether one answer to declining humanities enrollments is offer courses for those who later on in life realize what they have missed. Perhaps this accounts for the popularity of things like The Great Courses.

Why do I value the humanities? I could come up with profound answers but the truth is, it comes down to some good teachers who opened up the fascinations of history, the profound questions raised in great works of literature and philosophy and the passages of Augustine and Calvin that made my soul soar. There were also those in the sciences whose larger perspective on life looked beyond how things work to explore why we can understand these things and why they seem so beautiful, why the world is a place of wonder.

I realize as I muse on these things that I have no clue what the answer is to the decline in humanities enrollments and the curtailment of humanities programs. The most that I know to do is to keep affirming the richness and goodness and beauty of the fruits of these disciplines: literature, history, philosophy, political thought, art, music, and more. I don’t know that I can be a good teacher, but I hope I can celebrate those in print who have been good teachers to me and say, “look at this.”

Should Taxpayers Support Arts and Humanities?

It has been widely reported that our current administration is proposing to completely cut the budgets of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. This would mean cuts of $148 million to each of these agencies. According to an article on Snopes, the combined total represents 0.006 percent of the Federal budget or less than $1 per person.

I have to be honest. I’m deeply torn about this. The creation of great works of art in all its forms–visual, performance, written–is one that lifts us above what is often a “least common denominator aesthetics” of the marketplace. They capture both the greatest aspirations and painful realities of our human condition. Furthermore, there is a role of the humanities in educating us for citizenship, for our common life in the republic. The website of the National Endowment for the Humanities states:

“Because democracy demands wisdom, NEH serves and strengthens our republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans.”

Their work of creating and preserving culture includes funding resulting in seven thousand books, sixteen of which have won Pulitzer prizes. Did you like the Civil War series? NEH funding helped make that possible. We have a set of bookshelves in our living room filled with Library of America works by the best of America’s writers. NEH made that possible. Over 63.3 pages of newspaper have been digitally archived through the United States Newspaper Project. It can be asked how we can possibly aspire to greatness as a nation if we do not know our story.

Unless our object is to become a nation of barbarians, it seems to me that it is unarguable that we must continue to support our arts and letters. But it seems to me that this begs the question, should this be via government agency through compulsory taxation? And this is where I’m torn. Our 20 trillion dollar deficit (nearly $61,000 per person) tells me that we expect far more government than we are willing to pay for. Now the $300 million for these two agencies is just a drop in the bucket, even while we expand spending on our military and propose to build a hugely expensive border wall.  But if we aren’t willing to pay more taxes, we have to cut somewhere and truthfully, most of the rest is entitlements for both rich and poor, as well as our defense spending.

I wonder if it is time to make agencies like NEA and NEH into private foundations and to encourage private philanthropy to invest in the arts. One thinks of the Gates Foundation, which has given away as much as $5 billion to causes it supports in a single year. I for one would be happy if most of the money spent on political campaigns were given to the arts instead. Instead of the grief of robo-calls and endlessly coarse and repetitive advertising, we could have great art and great ideas. Probably not going to happen, but I can dream.

On a more serious note, my home town of Youngstown has a nationally known museum of American art because an industrial magnate made it possible to build an outstanding collection and provide free admission. Will a new generation of philanthropy step forward to fill the gap and sustain our artistic greatness? Could some of our wealthiest citizens step forward and replace what may be lost to budget cuts?

But support of the arts is not just for the rich. Most of us can think of at least one arts organization or artist that has given us joy. It could be a community arts center. You might do like a friend of mine and set aside money to buy original works of art and start your own art collection. Maybe it is your local public radio station. Perhaps it is a poet just starting to publish their work. I sing with a choral group, and I know that our ticket sales only cover a small portion of our budget. The joy of making great music together makes it worth investing not only my time but my money. Do you know that if just one million of us contributed $25 a month to such efforts, it would equal the budget cuts we have been talking about? And many of us could do more.

There is something else that can come of more of us personally supporting the arts and humanities. We tend to pay attention to what we invest in. We get to know artists and writers whose work we like. We come to understand what it means to give birth to works of beauty, and what many of these people sacrifice to do so. We break the walls of impersonality that have separated artists from the rest of us and enrich each other’s lives.

On one hand, I wonder why trifle over such a “drop in the bucket” when we propose to spend huge amounts on a wall that I doubt will make us any safer (the “really bad dudes” tend to have lots of money to circumvent things like walls). But I also wonder if organizations like NEA and NEH might be better off, and more accountable to the public, if they cut their ties with government. I can see why not all taxpayers get paying taxes, even a minuscule amount, for such things. Why not let those who do more directly support such efforts, and other arts organizations and artists from national to local levels. What is stopping us?



Hope for the Humanities?

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????The other day, I wrote on the rise of STEM education as well as alternate forms of post-secondary training. I argued that for many these forms of education provide the opportunity for productive work and economic advance. Also, I noted that the traditional liberal arts, humanities-oriented education might be an unaffordable luxury for many who do not come from more leisured, elite backgrounds. You might think I have it out for the humanities. And you couldn’t be more wrong.

The word “humanities” points to the fact that these disciplines have to do with the “human.” Historically, these disciplines have explored what it means to be human, how we have thought and lived out our humanness through history, what the life well-lived looks like, what constitutes the good, the true, and the beautiful, from whence they come, and why they matter. The worth of the humanities have been argued as the intellectual enrichment, and the depth of understanding, and character that informs virtuous life and citizenship. Stanford University defines the humanities as follows:

The humanities can be described as the study of how people process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world. These modes of expression have become some of the subjects that traditionally fall under the humanities umbrella. Knowledge of these records of human experience gives us the opportunity to feel a sense of connection to those who have come before us, as well as to our contemporaries.

Some of the courses I took in college (many were Gen Ed required courses) set me on a lifelong journey of learning. Most significant were a couple of courses in history that helped me see that history wasn’t simply about events and dates but understanding the complex variables of politics, economics, personality, beliefs, and so much else that contribute to events. I trace my love of history from those courses that impressed me with the idea that there was a value in knowing how we got here historically. Likewise, literature courses taught me to read deeply and critically, enhancing my enjoyment and appreciation of works. A philosophy course helped me understand the key figures in philosophy and the great questions of ultimate reality, ethics, and the ideas of the good, the true and the beautiful. I didn’t major in any of these disciplines but the courses began a lifelong pursuit of learning in each. This leads me to some observations:

  1. It appears to me that the radical skepticism and suspicion that seems to characterize some of the critical approaches particularly in literature and history may be digging these disciplines’ graves, rather than fostering a love of the humanities among both majors and non-majors. I can never forget the stunned look of a grad student in literature when I asked her when was the last time she had enjoyed a book.
  2. It seems we need to accept the reality that because of the demands of many technical disciplines there will be limited opportunity for humanities education of college students and thought and research needs to be devoted to how this might whet the appetite of the receptive to pursue lifelong learning.
  3. I wonder if there needs to be a conversation between secondary educators and the higher ed world on how to make the most of both high school and Gen Ed courses in the humanities. We saw dedicated high school teachers at my son’s school foster an engaged learning in lit and history courses.
  4. I’m struck with how much interest in the humanities there is among educated adults later in life. There is the example of The Great Courses and other online courses as well as reading groups organized around various interests in many communities. In our state, adults over 60 can audit courses at state universities and this affords opportunities for humanities educators to engage with motivated students.
  5. Departments who want to attract more majors need to be both compelling and honest. Majors may very well need to do a graduate degree or a second undergrad degree in a more employable field. For a student to choose that form of double work means they need compelling reasons to pursue these fields of study, inherent in the discipline.

This brings me to a critical question. The liberal arts developed in the context of the cathedral schools and universities that grew out of the church and the early universities in this country that were almost all church-related institutions. The liberal arts grew out of a perspective that rooted goodness, truth, and beauty in the transcendent, that understood both the greatness and fallibility of human beings, that saw history as having a telos or end and not simply the study of the will to power, or just “one damn thing after another” as Henry Ford saw it. It is striking that so many, like Anthony Kronman, continue to argue for the humanities, acknowledge their religious roots and yet are unwilling to allow a possible role of scholars of faith in contemporary studies in the humanities even though they may be the allies who may play a key role in their recovery.

The demise of the humanities would be a great loss. We are human beings and not just human doings. Understanding what it means to be human, and how to live well, and to understand how humans live best in society are all things the humanities can teach us. Might it not be one of those times when all who value the humanities, whether people of faith or not, come together to re-conceive their place in the academy? Along the way, we all might learn a bit more about what it means to be human.


Review: The Humanities and Public Life

The Humanities and Public Life
The Humanities and Public Life by Peter Brooks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is no question but that the humanities are under fire. Budgets are being cut, sometimes whole departments. How then to justify the humanities within the university, without accepting “instrumentalization”, a term thrown around much in this book, which means roughly, being able to demonstrate some “deliverable” or bottom line worth.

Peter Brooks, the editor of the book,and organizer of the symposium from which the articles and discussion in this book was drawn, starts with the “Torture Memos”, a series of Justice Department documents from the second Bush administration that justified waterboarding and other forms of torture against detainees deemed to be “dangerous” to national security. Brooks believes this to be the result of poor and unethical reading by those who formulated these memos (an assumption I question), and something that the humanities fundamentally address.

Following his introductory essay which overviews the symposium, Judith Butler talks about the instrumentalization of the humanities and uses as a case in point the term “deliverables”. Her contention ultimately is that the humanities equip one well to deconstruct the use of this term and to engage in resistance to its application to the humanities.

Three panels follow, each with two presentations followed by two or three responses and further discussion. The symposium and book conclude with a general discussion with a number of the presenters and respondents participating.

The first panel explores the question closest to Brooks’ heart, “Is there an ethics of reading?” Both presenters basically say yes, with Elaine Scarry arguing that reading literature and poetry can develop empathy for the human condition. Charles Larmore explores the act of interpretation and taking the author or communicative act serious in how one reads and derives meaning from a work.

The second panel considered the ethics of reading and the professions with Patricia Williams exploring the challenges of the vagaries of words and language that is often overlooked in various “legal fictions”. Ralph Hexter explores similar challenges in the life of a university administrator.

The final panel took on the relation of the humanities to human rights. Jonathan Lear’s essay, perhaps the most eloquent recounts living among the Crow Indians, not as a sociologist but as a story-teller listening to their words. A group that had been studied to death came alive when Lear simply expressed interest in their stories of identity lost and re-established, going so far as to adopt him into the tribe. Paul Kahn considers the broader domain of human rights and the ability of the humanities to interpret the languages of power governments use in human rights discussions, or evasions of those rights.

I was particularly interested in the discussion of ethical reading, something most readers don’t think about, yet which is vital for those who study the works of another and review or criticize those works. Equally, as Brooks and others would maintain,it can represent the vital difference between careful adherence to versus distortion of the law. (And yet I wonder whether those who created the Torture Memos were in fact excellent readers who were looking for ways to deal with the vagaries of words to distort laws to justify their ends. Not ethical, but it may not be for the lack of “ethical reading skills”.)

Much of this had for me the feeling of a “rear guard action”, the tactics of a retreating force. Perhaps at times, the use of critical skills can indeed be used to resist authoritarian, or simply pragmatic forces. This quality, and the often jargon-laden character of presentations hardly seem adequate for a spirited public argument for the place of the humanities in higher education. For that, I might direct the reader to Anthony Kronman’s Education’s End. The title of this work suggested an elevated and challenging public argument but delivered nothing more than a refined academic discussion that seemed to me to offer little to check the erosion of the humanities in either public life or higher education.

(This review is based on an electronic version of this work made available compliments of the publisher through Netgalley.)

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